How IR Can and Should Support the President

​Interview by Jan O’Brien, Manager of Institutional Research at Okanagan College. Jan, in true IR fashion, interviewed a college president, director of IR, and an IR data scientist to obtain each of their unique perspectives, and to determine any gaps in their perception of how IR can support a president at any institution.

Ken Burt is President of Northwest Community College in British Columbia, Canada. Ken is a previous AIR member and IR director. Ken was also an active member of CIRPA and PNAIRP. He held roles as vice president of finance at other universities prior to taking on the role of president at NWCC.

Jan: The American Council on Education’s American College President Study reports there are four areas in which presidents spend most of their time working: fundraising, budgets, community relations, and strategic planning. Budgeting was cited by respondents as the least favorite activity, and fund raising was the activity for which presidents felt least prepared. Would you agree with the report’s findings? Do you spend most of your time on these four activities?

k_burt_photo.pngKen: Yes, but I would add a fifth activity, labor relations. However, I wouldn’t agree that budgeting is my least favorite. I’ve had budgeting as part of my job since I started in higher education, so I actually enjoy it and I understand it well, much to the chagrin of some. Budgets are the tools we have to shift institutional activities to align with decision making to enable strategic planning goals to be realized. I would agree that fundraising was the area I was least prepared for; however, I’ve had help from other institutions including Okanagan College. Fundraising goes with community relations, and it is fun being able to interact with the community.

Institutional research supports my role by helping me to understand the institution beyond just the numbers with dollar signs in front of them. Having once been an IR director has prepared me to understand space planning so I could have meaningful dialogues with architects. Many years ago, all of the institutional IR directors were able to work collaboratively with the Provincial Ministry to determine space standards, FTE definitions, KPIs, and graduate outcomes. This knowledge is a great advantage to me as I understand all of the capacities of the institution: the classroom capacity, instructional capacity based on collective agreements, etc., and can see where the opportunities lie.

Jan: Fundraising is an important activity for student scholarships and bursaries, and for realizing capital projects. How has IR been able to support fundraising activities?

Ken: All the institutions look at fundraising differently. We are working on our student financial aid model to create bursaries, but also to expand scholarships. Scholarships are a powerful means to attract good students and support enrollment management.

Jan: NWCC, besides being in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, has many diverse communities to work with including a large proportion of Indigenous communities. Does IR support your community relations work?

Ken: IR helps me to understand how we can best support our community. Information such as K-12 projections, demography, economic conditions (the region is resource-based and subject to boom-bust cycles) all help with planning enrollment. Our community has a large proportion of First Nations people; understanding the challenges of these communities is important. For example, a large proportion of people over 16 do not have a driver’s license, so for our institution, that makes having student housing available on campus critical to student success. IR helps me to understand how we can best support our community. Information such as K-12 projections, demography, economic conditions (the region is resource-based and subject to boom-bust cycles) all help with planning enrollment. Our community has a large proportion of First Nations people; understanding the challenges of these communities is important. For example, a large proportion of people over 16 do not have a driver’s license, so for our institution, that makes having student housing available on campus critical to student success.

Jan: You’ve undergone an extensive strategic planning process in the last year including a proposed rebranding of the institution. How has IR supported this process?

Ken: IR supports this with environmental scanning. A good leader asks the right questions; for example, by looking at the immediate transition from high school, we saw we had lost students. The enrollment opportunities the data revealed drove our branding efforts. That rebranding process is still underway but we hope to move forward with it soon. While all of the provincial colleges have very similar programming, the differences lie in our unique regions and communities. Collaboratively in Northern BC, we’ve created the Study North Initiative with the local university and the three regional colleges to make the northern region a destination for students to study.

At NWCC, we have three enrollment goals, to improve our high school immediate transition rate, to attract more students from southern BC, and to attract international students. We are transformative, adventurous, and we approach our work with integrity. The branding has also helped us to recruit excellent employees, those urban adventurers coming up to the pristine northwest for a better quality of life.

Next, Jan interviewed NWCC’s Stephen Salem, Director of Institutional Research and Registrar.  

Jan: Stephen, in terms of the perspective of your dual role (IR and registrar), how does your work support the president?

stephen_photo1.pngStephen: Well, first, we’ve heard from the Board of Governors that in the last couple of years, they have never had so much information and are very glad of it; it helps the Board members better understand the issues facing the College. Our president is a data guy. When Ken first came to NWCC, the College was facing a large budget deficit; he’s turned that around and we are looking at a balanced budget now with stable student enrollment. He’s had to make some very difficult decisions over the last few years, but our department’s focus on better data collection and reporting has helped get support for those decisions from the employees, board, and community.

One of the issues we face is that some of the Provincial targets are inappropriate; even operating at full capacity, we would not be able to attain some of these. With good information, we know at what point we can add more faculty and staff to support additional enrollment. As well, good information on our capacity helps us in our discussions with the Provincial government and funders about how we can best meet our mandate and support the community.

Our president believes in hiring good people and having good policies to direct them and then let them get on with it. When I arrived a couple of years ago, there was a massive policy void. I’ve spent a lot of time developing admissions and registration policies and procedures to guide decision making including refund and scheduling policies. Once the policies were in place, we were then able to use the data from IR to determine Go No-Go thresholds for classes, whether to run or cancel a class. Our work with policy and data has helped the relationships with faculty as they better understand the issues we are facing and the imperative of our College to be fiscally viable. Through the discourse, relationships are better and faculty members, as the subject matter experts, are helping the Registrar’s office with recruiting and advising. This support has been important. Being both IR Director and Registrar gives me a unique opportunity to see the enrollment picture with both data and policy - how data informs policy decisions.

We’ve started a Strategic Enrollment Management Team. Using data, we’ve been able to refine our business processes. For example, we’ve been able to research how our former admissions policies were a barrier for Aboriginal students seeking federal grants for living allowances. We’ve updated these policies to remove this barrier. Data helps with our efforts at continuous improvement of our processes in the registrar’s office.

Last up was the interview with Jonathan Stone, Institutional Research Data Scientist at NWCC.

Jan: So, Jon, how do you believe IR supports the president?

Jon: In terms of the activities list, I support the president with enrollment-demand forecasting, strategic planning, and community relations mostly.

j_stone_photo.pngFor enrollment planning, I look at external data; however, because we are a collection of small communities, we don’t have many good external data sources available, especially for economic indicators like unemployment. I use the school district headcount projections and demographics and I look for correlations between these and program enrollments. Our university transfer program enrollment is very dependent on the Grade 12 headcount numbers, and our Grade 12 numbers are decreasing, so I make sure that the dean is aware of the trend. I also use the student transition data along with some local intelligence on the economies of each community. For example, our large liquefied natural gas pipeline project has been stalled because of the investment climate. So, this summer, we are seeing an increase in our enrollments for fall. It is difficult to make enrollment models when dealing with small programs as the swings in enrollment numbers can vary greatly. These models need to be tempered with opinions from the deans and program coordinators.

Much of this information went into our environmental scan for strategic planning. With the development of the new strategic plan, I am helping develop the key performance indicators to turn the plan into something measurable. I’m looking at developing new data sources. For example, I am looking at the strategic objective, “transformative” and determining how to measure this. I’m looking at curriculum management software to assess the learning outcomes identified that can be defined as transformative in nature, using Bloom’s Taxonomy. It is still in the planning stage and we don’t have metrics for everything yet.

In terms of budgeting, I help with a data extraction, but not much more with the process after that. With fundraising, I provide data on student grades for scholarship awards, and have done research on what other institutions do, such as what competitive scholarships are offered.

With rebranding, I ran a survey and did the analysis for marketing. I help with data on student success, student satisfaction, marketing materials, and community relations. I look for accurate data that portrays the college positively, as well as what adds value to students.


Thanks to Ken, Stephen, and Jon for sharing their time and experiences. In summary, the three perspectives seem to be very well aligned. The college president naturally has a broader view including capital projects to support the college and its community; he wants to ask the right questions to obtain the right information for decision making. The IR director’s focus is on relationships within the organization to support continuous improvement. His activities have involved developing policies and improving enrollment management processes. The IR data scientist has been focused on better data collection and reporting, as well as supporting enrollment management and strategy. Together, this system of information is an effective two-way flow, supporting the president upward, while also supporting the people downward by communicating what is required. Having a president who understands IR seems to be a significant advantage for this college.